Feb 28, 2018 | By Benedict

Researchers at Harvard University have developed a platform for creating 3D printed soft robots with embedded sensors that can sense movement, pressure, touch, and temperature. The researchers are calling it a “foundational advance” in soft robotics.

Harvard researchers have 3D printed soft robots with embedded sensors

It’s not often that two world-leading research institutes sit side by side at the same university. But then again, most universities aren’t like Harvard, where the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering recently joined forces to develop a 3D printing platform for creating soft robots.

Previously, researchers at Harvard had been able to build soft robots that could perform various functions: swimming, holding an object, and even helping to assist a human heartbeat. None, however, could adequately sense and respond to external stimuli.

The new 3D printing platform developed at Harvard changes all that, allowing scientists to create soft robots that can sense movement, pressure, touch, and temperature. It’s a huge leap for soft robotics, and a hugely exciting application of additive manufacturing technology.

“Our research represents a foundational advance in soft robotics,” commented Ryan Truby, first author of a research paper on the study and recent Ph.D. graduate at SEAS. “Our manufacturing platform enables complex sensing motifs to be easily integrated into soft robotic systems.”

The secret to the process is the 3D printing of the sensors themselves, which are made from an organic ionic liquid-based conductive ink. This ink can be 3D printed within the soft elastomer matrices of the robot, and makes the sensors soft where previously they would have been rigid.

Researcher Ryan Truby previously worked on the world's first 3D printed autonomous soft robot

“To date, most integrated sensor/actuator systems used in soft robotics have been quite rudimentary,” said Michael Wehner, former postdoctoral fellow at SEAS and co-author of the paper. “By directly printing ionic liquid sensors within these soft systems, we open new avenues to device design and fabrication that will ultimately allow true closed-loop control of soft robots.”

The process involved the use of embedded 3D printing, a technique pioneered by the Wyss Institute’s own Jennifer A. Lewis.

“The function and design flexibility of this method is unparalleled,” said Truby. “This new ink combined with our embedded 3D printing process allows us to combine both soft sensing and actuation in one integrated soft robotic system.”

The Harvard researchers tested their 3D printing platform by making a soft robotic gripper that could sense inflation pressure, curvature, contact, and temperature using multiple embedded contact sensors, and they say their new process could “revolutionize how robots are created.” They now plan to experiment with machine learning to improve the soft robotic devices.

The research paper, “Soft Somatosensitive Actuators via Embedded 3D Printing,” has been published in Advanced Materials.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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